Most Pokémon are showers — when they evolve, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get. Take Bulbasaur, for instance: He’s got that enclosed bulb on his back, but when you power him up, that bit of foreskin peels back to reveal a rather predictable pink flower. Then there’s the water-squirting Pokémon Squirtle, who, with some training and the proper level of excitement, becomes Wartortle, a slightly larger creature able to squirt a bit more than before.
But then there’s Magikarp, the useless, floppy fish of the Pokémon family. He’s small — laughable even — yet when Magikarp is given the proper attention, he explodes into the giant serpent dragon Gyarados, a force to be reckoned with that can shame nearly all other Pokémon.
Along with the entirely unique energy that Magikarp has among his fellow Pokémon, his fanbase is also unlike any other. Most Pokémon are beloved because they’re cute, like Pikachu, or because they’re badass, like Charizard, but Magikarp is different. Magikarp fans love him in two distinct and entirely different ways: One ironic, the other entirely sincere.
For the ironic Magikarp fans, they just think he’s funny. A helpless little jumping fish that lacks any special powers is the perfect joke for a franchise that revolves around electrically-charged bunny rabbits and the like. The Twitter user @Magikarp_Fish tells me, “I like how actually useless Magikarp is, so I thought it would be funny to make an account kinda surrounded by that.” This take on Magikarp has only been reinforced by the creators of Pokémon, who tend to present the fish in entirely pathetic situations. The greatest example of this, undoubtedly, is their official song for Magikarp, which includes the almost-kind-of-rhyming lyric:
The weak Pokémon, that’s you, Magikarp
But though you are the weakest, still you’ve won my heart
Oh, and if that’s not enough for you, there’s also a dance version:
But not everyone is making fun of Magikarp. Some fans appreciate Magikarp as something of a metaphor for being underestimated: To these fans, they are Magikarp, and they’re just doing what they can in life to someday become Gyarados, which is kind of lovely when you think about it. It’s the kind of thing dreams are made of!
Instagram user @pokelawn tells me, “Magikarp is like life. It looks rough and weak at first, but, just like life, it can turn into something powerful and beautiful.” There’s also “The Magikarp King,” as he’s known, who founded the Magikarp Fan Club on Twitter (which, at present, is 267 members strong). He explains, “Magikarp isn’t like other Pokémon. It’s not the strongest or the biggest, but I say Magikarp is a very determined Pokémon. The way Magikarp is determined to evolve into Gyarados. I think that shows determination.”
Then there’s fan Anthony Keener, who says, “I really like the whole underdog story behind Magikarp and the idea that everyone thought it was a useless Pokémon, only to find out it evolves into a crazy dragon and is actually super epic. I related to this because I grew up in a low-class family and I guess I kinda looked up to that idea and it gave me hope as a kid.” Kenner is so connected to this story that, when he got his first tattoo six years ago, it was of Gyarados.
While the Pokémon company is just as likely to joke about Magikarp as his ironic fanbase is, the sincere Magikarp fans argue that they’re the true Magikarp lovers because they actually appreciate him. Their take, apparently, also aligns with Magikarp’s possible origin, as some say it’s based on a Chinese legend of the carps at the dragon gate. In the story, hundreds of carp are trying to jump over a waterfall to reach the dragon gate, but only the most determined carp is able to make it over. When it finally does make it over, the carp is rewarded by the gods by being transformed into a golden dragon.
Though it’s unclear if this was Magikarp’s actual basis, at least one Pokémon game alludes to this, as the only way to evolve Magikarp in it is to bounce him into a waterfall. (And, yeah, this legend is Chinese while Pokémon is Japanese, but that’s neither here nor there.)
That waterfall, though, isn’t the only way that Magikarp has realized his awe-inspiring anatomic potential. Throughout the many different versions of Pokémon, the ways to evolve Magikarp vary wildly, from persistently humiliating yourself by having him lose in battle, to needing to feed him enough Magikarp candies to arouse the Gyarados within.
The effect, however, never gets old. From the movie Detective Pikachu:
To the video games…
To the cartoon…
When Magikarp turns into Gyarados, it always makes for a great reaction video. Because who doesn’t enjoy the pleasant surprise of a massive grower?